The festival of Juhannus, or Midsummer, is second only to Christmas in importance in Finland. It has been observed since pagan times in many northern countries at the summer solstice. The early Christian Church designated June 24 as the feast day of St. John the Baptist, and its observation begins the evening before, on St. John’s Eve.
In Finland, summer officially begins with Juhannus. The longest day of the year is marked in many different fashions around the globe but in the north it is infused with a zest rarely seen elsewhere. Close to the Arctic Circle the sun briefly flirts with the horizon but never surrenders its light. These are the magical white nights of the north, and in pagan times Juhannus was the night for driving away the evil ones with bonfires erected on lakeshores and islands, huge pyres of wood that tinted the hazy sky with a mad orange glow.
It was also a celebration of the reappearance of the anemone, the flowering of the chokecherry, the birthing of the young. And a celebration of the act that produces the young. Fertility rituals and supernatural omens for mate-finding traditionally played a large role. These traditions were varied and often regional. Maypoles were part of the western Finnish culture while bonfires (kokkos) are found everywhere to this day. Vestibules and doorways were draped with birch boughs and rowan branches.
The Finns fortify themselves with homemade mead (sahti) or other spirits before facing the social demands of the night.
The ancient spells of mate-finding were passed on through generations of women. On Juhannus Eve a maiden had to place birch twigs on the path before her home so that in the morning they would point her in the direction where her true love would be found. A common belief was that if she placed seven different kinds of wildflowers under her pillow on Juhannus Eve, she would have a dream in which her future husband would appear. More daringly, if she went out on Juhannus Eve wearing nothing but a garland of hay around her waist, waded into the middle of a stream and sat on a rock she would be more desirable. And if there was someone she especially desired, she went to the rye field at his farm on Juhannus Eve, naked except for a garland of hay around her waist, and rolled about in the field.
Nowadays Juhannus typically involves the raising of the flag in the early evening, followed by the singing of patriotic anthems and songs about summer. Then everyone adjourns to the sauna, where fresh birch switches lie fragrant and green on the benches, and cool lake water sparkles in large pails. After the sauna, the guests gather around picnic tables as the hostess prepares the delicious crepes called lettus, to be eaten with whipped cream and strawberries. Drinks follow, along with toasts to friends and family, the summer, Juhannus, possibly the leaders of the nation and family forefathers, interspersed with snippets of song. The evening bubbles and ferments with hilarity, the fish still splash and jump, and bees still search for nectar in the daylight that refuses to die.
Later, the bonfire is lit and bursts into flames that lick the sky with insistent red tongues and feed the evening air with wave after wave of heat.
“The whole sky glows and the air itself seems to shimmer in the soft, gentle light…When the sun goes down briefly, the whole of nature settles into a strange dreamy mood. The bringer of day is gone, birds fall silent, humans and animals seek rest and plants wait for night that does not come. Instead, a dim, silvery light spreads over forests, waters and shores. It is not the light of the sun, the moon or the stars.”